the things we remember, the things we forget
Some people can spend their whole lives in a big city and never grow tired of it. I was not built of this stock. For now, I prefer city for everyday life, but if I don’t make a somewhat regular point to get out, I go a little bit nuts. Somewhere the trees can be smelled and the stars seen. Last week, Chris and I thought it best for our individual and combined sanity to go away for the weekend. We brainstormed and spent some time looking at this list. We considered weather, distance, the biggest bang for our buck. I considered food.
Our original plan was to drive to Jeonju, a small city about three hours south of Seoul, famous for bibimbap. I’m willing to travel any distance by any medium for food, even if there’s nothing else to do in that particular place, which I’m sure to some people holds about the same level of excitement as watching grass grow. It was a last minute plan, and places with vacancy were pricey. So we decided to drive further and climb a mountain instead, with a midday break in Jeonju for lunch. The bibimbap was excellent, satisfying, and made me believe that a version with raw beef, sesame, and a lone egg yolk is the way to go.
We spent more time in Jeonju than we’d planned, so that by the time we reached our destination, the sun had been set for an hour and it was harder to see the roads. We were looking for a specific place to stay, a minbak, sort of South Korea’s version of an affordable bed and breakfast. We drove close to the base of the mountain we were to climb the next day, and in the distance, we saw a house lit up against a black backdrop of mountains. We turned down a road heading to the house. We wanted to see if the owners would take us in.
Chris knocked on the door and a woman answered. Her dog barked shrill and high from the deck where he was chained, making him sound much smaller than he actually was. A big, fluffy white dog, exactly the type I’d picture to live domesticated in the mountains. The owner told us her house was just a house, not a minbak, but that she knew of a place we could go. She made a call and wrote down the number for us in case we got lost. Ten minutes later, another woman was leading us up her rocky driveway and showing us to the space she had available. The room was free-standing and simple, with no furniture but a low table and a coat rack. We would sleep on the heated floor, like most Koreans do. (The only other time I’d slept on a floor worth mentioning was with four other people, and it was the best sleep I’d had in years). The bathroom was detached from the main room, the sink a faucet with a hose attached and a bowl to catch the water. For dinner, she made steamed rice and soup, her own kimchi and red pepper paste, wild chives in sesame oil, and a salad with baby leaves she’d picked outside minutes before plating them. We ate in her kitchen while she stood by the table and told us about her dog, Yanni. She opened a cabinet holding what seemed to be things she treasured and pulled out a pair of antlers, and she laughed as she explained who they’d belonged to: a deer slain by Yanni, this dog the size of a large fox. To celebrate, the town had a barbecue and made a highly coveted soup using the bones. We fell asleep to the buzz of the refrigerator and woke up to the daily call of her rooster.
For breakfast, she made rice, soup, leaves from a local wild stonecrop, smoked fish, and fried eggs from her chickens. She had thick, solid hands, the kind that knew how to work hard, and the character of someone who’d spent her life where she was happiest. She told us she’d climbed Jirisan over fifty times.
The hike started easy enough, though at the time, I was thinking differently. I forgot a few things when I suggested we visit the second highest mountain in South Korea – my fear of heights and the fact that it was my first time truly climbing, namely. To forget a fear of heights can be beneficial when you’re agreeing to go somewhere high – I think if I was able to call upon the feeling I get when the fear strikes, I’d have enough of a reason not to try. When we were close to the peak and I was close to the edge, Chris asked me, patiently, if I wanted to go back down. I bit through tears and snapped, “No way!”
We kept moving. When we got to the top, the cold wind blew sharply. The sky was clear blue, and if there would have been clouds, we would have been above them.
I thought we’d have lunch at the peak, maybe cheers some makgeoulli with our fellow hikers. But after about ten minutes of taking photos, we started the descent. And holy hell. If I thought the way up was taxing, the way back down was part of a new category in both physical and mental challenges that I hadn’t prepared for. I spent some time cursing, some time talking myself down from panicking, and some time sliding down on my ass, at which I looked up at Chris and shrieked, “This is humiliating!” He deserves a gold medal for unwavering support and patience, and for letting me be the first to laugh. There was ice and snow to add to the excitement, and it seemed like just as we’d get to a difficult spot, a group of hikers would catch up to us. I always wanted to let them pass. They seemed to glide over the rocks, and more than once, I thought, “Who in their right minds could enjoy this?!” As we trailed behind a group of monks, I tried hard to focus on the beauty of the rushing water to my right instead of the steep drop-off to my left. But really, I just kept thinking how spectacular it was going to feel to get to the bottom. When we did, I thought I would cheer. Instead, I cried. Out of relief, frustration, and pain. The real rush of accomplishment came yesterday after every other emotion had settled. Ask me tomorrow if I’d do it again, and I might just say yes.